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Updated 10 March 2016

Bill Clinton: ‘First Husband’ or ‘First Gentleman’?

If Hillary Clinton became America's first woman president she would be called President Clinton. CyberShrink wonders what her husband Bill Clinton's 'title' should be.

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America, and indeed the whole world, is looking with horror at the possibility of a Trump presidency – fearful of the oldest toddler in the world bringing the subtlety of the schoolyard and the language of the perennial bully to international politics.

The other more likely, and more palatable, alternative is however no less interesting: the first woman president of America, with an ex-president by her side.    

‘President Lite’

The first question that springs to mind is what he should be called. "First Mate" has a nice ring to it, but it may be too nautical. I personally quite like "President Lite".  

There’s precedent in the Philippines (and in the USA with the husbands of female governors), for First Husband, but that’s not exactly analogous to First Lady. First Gentleman, also used in such situations, would perhaps be the equivalent, though Bill hasn’t always excelled as a gentleman.  It would definitely be more dignified, and suggests that his role is intended to be genteel, rather than merely confirming his status as husband. First Husband also sounds as if he’s the first of a number of husbands.

Read: Bill Clinton now a vegan

He himself has jokingly suggested First Laddie, but he’s not even Scottish, so that’s just silly and juvenile. He’s also suggested Adam, as in the First Man. Sarah Palin when briefly Governor of Alaska referred to her mate as First Dude, apparently at his request, but why would anyone want to follow their horrid example?  

In Australia, I read that Julia Gillard’s partner was called First Bloke, which is fine for Australia . . . Nowadays a head of state may, like France’s Hollande, have a long-term woman partner without being married, which can become awkward in terms of a title if the partner is replaced.

Any title for the spouse of a head of state is unofficial as such a person acquires prominence merely by virtue of being attached to a prominent figure. Their role is often only vaguely defined, and the general expectation is that they remain quiet and well-behaved. A good example is Margaret Thatcher’s husband Denis – she might have been the Iron Lady, but he was certainly not the Iron Man.   

Some interesting manoeuvring

The Americans have also used the terms First Couple, and First Family. This “firstness” indicates prominence, importance and social status, which makes one wonder what kind of “first” our very own President Zuma should be. Deciding the order of prominence of his wives could also make for some interesting manoeuvring.

Read: Keeping Zuma healthy 'an expensive business'

The first First Lady of America was of course Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington. Way back in Roman times, some leaders, wanting to avoid titles like king or emperor, chose First Citizen, with their wife being the First Lady. Where the president is a bachelor or widower, a daughter or other relative often filled the role of First Hostess when welcoming visitors.  

American First Ladies have varied in how active and how popular they were, usually occupying themselves with wholesome social activities without being politically active. They attended to Christmas trees, and household porcelain. Woodrow Wilson’s wife Edith, though, became very powerful, essentially running the country while her husband was disabled by a stroke, unbeknownst to the nation.

Read: Elton John honours Hillary Clinton for HIV/Aids work

Another exception was Eleanor Roosevelt, who was politically very active, outspokenly working for human and women’s rights. Betty Ford was involved with abortion rights, the Equal Rights laws, mental health issues, alcoholism, and breast cancer.  

Entertainment and ‘affairs’

Hillary Clinton was also a highly politically engaged First Lady, working, not always with much success, for health care reform and other issues. Similarly, busy with affairs of state, Hillary as President may need Bill to be effectively a First Lady in terms of organising and hosting state entertainment and “affairs”.

Read: What constitutes sex?

In Bill’s case, there’s the habit that in America there’s a strong custom of referring to someone who has held high office by that title for life. So he will probably also be referred to as Mr President or even President Clinton,  which could become confusing if his wife becomes President Clinton in her own right. Perhaps he could be addressed as former President Clinton.

But what will he actually do?

A problem will be figuring out a worthwhile role for him, using his undoubted skills, without drawing the spotlight from his wife.  He seems to have managed this reasonably gracefully during the Primary Campaign, which has used him sparingly and very, very carefully so far. 

Bill on best behaviour

She has suggested, in interviews, that she won’t entrust him with the domestic and hosting tasks. She doesn’t see him running state dinners, “picking out china or floral arrangements or anything like that”. Many a First Lady has redecorated the White House, but she doesn’t see him doing that either.  

She has said she wants him to help with the economy and creating jobs, and that she’d send him on special missions. She’s banking on positive memories of the economic successes of his term in office, even though it’s not entirely clear whether these were due to his wisdom or simply the good luck of having been president at the right time.

Right now, Bill is on best behaviour. Whether he’ll be able to keep that up during her whole term of office doesn’t seem likely. He loves public attention. He’s managed to restrain himself during the intervening Presidencies, but will he manage to maintain this while his wife is President, especially if his official role seems drab and uninteresting? 

Hillary may need Bill most of all to supplement her own failings. As she has repeatedly demonstrated in these campaigns, she comes across as a deeply experienced politician, just at the time when the American public has grown thoroughly sick of politicians; as a total insider when nobody trusts insiders; and as hard to like or trust – cold, manipulative, planned and plastic. 

Read: Personality traits are not universal

Bill, though he is indeed a brilliant politician and insider, has the rare skill of not seeming to be that. He is likeable, relaxed, feels like one of us, and is trusted, even if you’re not quite sure why you should trust him. 

So it may be that it is for his personal qualities, warmth and likeability that she most needs him if she becomes President, valuable though his political advice might be.

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Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.

 

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